Nathan Rabin @ Sundance 2012: Day Seven 

Nathan Rabin @ Sundance 2012: Day Seven 

The Words: This punishingly idiotic melodrama is a maddening contradiction: a film about the publishing world and a great literary fraud that doesn’t have a literary bone in its body or a thought in its pretty, empty little head. It appears to be the work of people who have never actually read a book, let alone possess keen insight into the literary world and the suffering souls that populate it.

The laughable miscalculation begins by miscasting male starlet Bradley Cooper as a passionate young aspiring author (shades of Limitless) who stumbles upon a brilliant, undiscovered manuscript inside a bag in a shop in Paris. What literally unbelievable luck! Cooper hasn’t had any success selling his own novels, so rather than go into a line of work better suited to his talents, like male modeling or prostitution, Cooper passes off the musty old unpublished, unseen novel (by a writer who conveniently never published anything despite being a towering literary genius) as his own and is instantly rocketed to stardom.

Then one day a decrepit creature slathered in hilariously unconvincing old man make-up (an abysmally hammy Jeremy Irons) shows up to claim the novel as his own work and share with Cooper the incredibly tedious tale of how he came to write it during his tortured youth as a G.I. and WWII veteran in Paris. Ah, but Irons’ tale actually qualifies as a story within a story within a story, as Cooper’s literary chicanery is itself a yarn being told by even more successful author (Dennis Quaid) to an adoring crowd and then to a hot young aspiring author he hopes to impress/bed.

The Words has no sense of humor or sense of its own ridiculousness, so its abundant laughs are all unintentional. It’s too stupid to be pretentious, even as its overbearing score attempts to give the film a depth and urgency it never comes close to earning. With its story-within-a-story-within-a-story structure, it’sa veritable Russian nesting doll of utterly unredeemable crap. (D-)


Shut Up And Play The Hits: Equal parts funeral and party, the wonderful LCD Soundsystem documentary/concert film Shut Up And Play The Hits chronicles for posterity the revered dance band’s final concert in front of a sold-out crowd at Madison Square Garden. Like D.A, Pennebaker’s Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars,the film documents an artist intent on going out on top, even if it means leaving an army of devoted fans salivating for more—especially if it leaves an army of devoted fans salivating for more. As the similarly transcendent earlier Sundance documentary Sugar Man illustrated indelibly, that is how legends are made.

Shut Up And Play The Hits begins with a fair amount of James Murphy walking his dog and making coffee. In a fascinating, philosophical interview with Chuck Klosterman that serves as the film’s framing device, Murphy talks a lot about the role of mythology in pop culture and the curious nature of rock stardom as well as the seemingly unbridgeable gulf between, to give an example Murphy sites, the Nick Cave who has to check his emails and conduct the mundane rituals of everyday life and the Nick Cave who swaggers onstage as an unknowable, untouchable rock god.

As if to justify its title, Shut Up And The Play The Hits begins with purposefully mundane glimpses of Murphy the forty-something dog-walker and coffee lover before our hero—who also produced the film—ducks into his metaphorical phone booth and emerges the wildly charismatic lead singer and front-man of one of the most electrifying rock bands in the world.

Shut Up And Play The Hits captures a performer at the very peak of his powers, in full command of his craft. The film periodically cuts to audience members on the verge of what could be either tears of joy or tears of sadness; both responses are appropriate, since Shut Up And Play The Hits is both a climax and a finale, a cause for celebration and a cause for sadness.

Murphy and his band perform before a sold-out audience in the grips of ecstasy, both chemically and naturally-induced. Shut Up And Play The Hits offers audiences a sustained natural high: Murphy’s genius lies in creating cerebral, self-conscious dance music that nevertheless affects listeners on a profoundly visceral level.

At its ecstatic, delirious best, Shut Up And Play The Hits is a profoundly spiritual and emotional experience, a once-in-a-lifetime coming together of 18,000 people and a score of musicians under the spell of a man intent on giving himself and his audience the best goddamned going away party ever. (A-)


My Sister’s Sister: Writer-director Lynne Shelton’s My Sister’s Sister hews close enough to the agreeably loose, largely improvised template of her Sundance breakout hit Humpday to suffer terribly by comparison. Both films explore fluid notions of sexuality, one convincingly, the other less so, and both star Mark Duplass, but My Sister’s Sister feels forced and strained where Humpday rang effortlessly real.

Duplass, who also wrote the lackluster Sundance thriller Black Rock for wife Katie Aselton, stars as an aimless slacker (a real change of pace for the mumblecore fixture) who is dispatched by best friend Emily Blunt to her family’s remote country home for a little rest and relaxation after he delivers a sour and boozy speech at a memorial for his brother.

Upon arriving at the house, Duplass is shocked and then delighted to find it occupied by Blunt’s American sister (Rosemarie DeWitt), an attractive lesbian on the rebound after ending a seven-year-long relationship. Fueled by tequila and DeWitt’s newfound freedom, Duplass and DeWitt stumble into a sexual fling as short as it is ill-considered.

To make matters even more complicated, Blunt shows up unexpectedly the next day and tells DeWitt she’s desperately in love with Duplass and can’t keep her feelings a secret any longer. That would be enough contrivance for most films, but My Sister’s Wedding keeps pushing the plot further and further into the realm of wackiness at the expense of verisimilitude, especially with a groan-inducing third-act reveal that casts DeWitt’s character in a harsher light and ups the stakes in a patently artificial manner.  

My Sister’s Sister lacks the painful ring of truth and psychological complexity that made Humpday so unexpectedly moving as well as funny and real. My Sister’s Sister doesn’t feel like mumblecore grown up (in part because the characters remain so frustratingly, predictably adolescent in their behavior and motivation) so much as mumblecore gone half sitcom, half rom-com. (C)

V/H/S: As Poltergeist illustrated decades ago, there’s something inherently creepy and unnerving about crackle and distortion on the small screen. The ingenious low-fi horror anthology V/H/S amplifies that creepiness tenfold by telling a series of macabre stories through fuzzy, scratchy, glitchy, distortion and-crackled-laden technology that ranges from Skype to a spy-camera hidden inside a pair of glasses to everyday camcorders. V/H/S owes a huge debt to the shaky camcorders, purposefully artless framing, and freaked-out kids of The Blair Witch Project,but has a darkly funny and gore-intensive personality of its own.

The film’s connecting story involves a group of delinquent youngsters who break into a creepy old house on a crime spree and discover VHS tapes containing a series of spooky tales. In the grand tradition of slasher films, many of the entries chronicle attempts by young people to get drunk and laid that lead to bloodshed and unimaginable horror. From the very first story, an atmospheric tale about a trio of ribald partiers who pick up a spooky, big-eyed, seemingly innocent and vulnerable girl with a sinister secret, sex and death are inextricably linked.

Most horror anthologies are lucky to contain a single strong entry, but there’s not a weak entry in this bunch. V/H/S’fuzzy, distorted look and hand-held camerawork lends it a surprising level of cohesion for a horror anthology. That’s all the more remarkable considering V/H/S was directed by no less than six filmmakers, most notably mumblecore fixture Joe Swanberg and House Of The Devil director Ti West.

V/H/S seems destined for midnight movie status (or at least a healthy cult following on DVD), but considering how cleverly it plays with and exploits the limitations and perversions of technology and the ugliness of humanity, there would be something poetically apt about watching it on a half-broken iPhone with terrible wi-fi, especially if that iPhone is stolen. (B)

Up Next: Nothing! I leave Park City. Don’t miss Noel’s big Sundance wrap-up, which is awesome. Thanks for reading! 

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